'We Are X': Sundance Review

We Are X - H 2016
Tanya Braganti/Courtesy of MSO PR

We Are X - H 2016

A standard rock-doc for fans only. Good thing there are millions of 'em.

The U.S.-unknown Japanese rock stars make their Madison Square Garden debut.

Relatively few Americans are familiar with X Japan, pioneers since the '80s of a glammy music genre known as "visual rock" or "visual kei." But they're megastars in their home country, having reportedly sold over 30 million records, and their fan base has crept past borders such that, when they made their way here in 2014, they headlined Madison Square Garden. In a film celebrating the group's survival through tragedy and internal strife, Stephen Kijak (Stones in Exile) delivers an enthusiastic but wholly conventional rock-doc that is unlikely to sell uninitiated viewers on the band's music, though it does let us see a pretty amazing array of stage costumes and hairdos. Stateside, a video release for We Are X should have little trouble connecting with the group's cult.

What kind of music does X Japan make? Well, they're the kind of group whose leader might casually announce at sound check, "I'm gonna do the last, like, 10 minutes of the drum solo." Early performance clips suggest a speed-metal band seeking endorsements from an array of hair-spray brands, but over the years they've added symphonic elements and plenty of power ballads to the mix. (Drummer Yoshiki, the co-founder and back-of-the-stage frontman of the group, started as a classical pianist and was once asked to write a classical piece for Emperor Akihito.) Theatrics have been key to their success, and rock showmen Gene Simmons and Marilyn Manson drop by very briefly to express their admiration on camera. (As does comic book legend Stan Lee, whose connection to the band isn't explained.)

Yoshiki is the natural focus for the doc, a man who despite his frenzied drumming is physically frail, constantly wearing braces and getting injections to ease the pain performing brings him. At one point, he says, he was in the hospital for a third of the year; his mother reveals that, when he was born, doctors said he wouldn't live to adulthood. Yoshiki sometimes gives so much of himself onstage he collapses there, in what some fans have mistaken for James Brown-style shtick. Japanese fans surely have a dozen reasons they find Yoshiki so charismatic, but to judge from the amount of time Kijak gives to his ailments, pain and endurance are all we need to know about him.

The band has endured its share of pain as well. Members have left (two killed themselves) and the group split up for 10 years because lead singer Toshi was brainwashed by a cult he was introduced to by his wife. The film offers little insight into these dramas, preferring to spend time following Yoshiki around New York as he does press and preps for that MSG gig, the culmination of several years of reunion touring.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production company: Passion Pictures
Director: Stephen Kijak
Producers: John Battsek, Diane Becker, Jonathan McHugh, Jonathan Platt
Directors of photography: Sean Kirby, John Maringouin
Editors: Mako Kamitsuna, John Maringouin
Sales: Diane Becker, Passion Pictures

In Japanese and English

Not rated, 93 minutes